Jail Time for the Gnutella Set?

Since the dawn of the PC era, many companies have been prosecuted, and some people have even gone to jail, for the crime of pirating software.

The perpetrators were often sophisticated operators who went to a lot of trouble in building their “businesses.” They had disk copying machines, CD presses they even made their own labels.

Few of us had sympathy for the big pirates, even though most of us were legally in the same boat. We routinely violated stated copyright agreements by putting Microsoft Office on multiple machines or letting the kids bring Space Invaders to their friends’ homes.

With the rise of the web (which makes copying files easier) publishers got tougher. In addition to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a broad-based coalition passed the No Electronic Theft Act, with stiff criminal penalties for easy-to-perform copyright violations.

As of July, you can draw three years in prison for getting caught with a copyrighted MP3 on your hard drive. Get caught twice (and many indictments carry multiple counts), and you could draw up to six years per count.

In practical terms, it means if your kid downloads Gnutella and uses it to collect MP3s, your kid could easily wind up living most of his life among the mother-stabbers and father-rapers in our federal prison system. (Maybe we’ll have to toss a few of these worthies outside to make room for your little baby. But anything to protect copyright.)

In a recent Upside column, Joseph Reyna suggests that these weapons will now be deployed.

I’d respectfully suggest that here not in China and not in Singapore is where the war between the law and the Internet will really come to a head. How much do you want to bet that some of those idealistic kids arrested in Washington this week are also Gnutella users, maybe heavy users? Hey, if they also got arrested in Seattle they could be three-time losers, once the Feds find the Backstreet Boys on their hard drives.

This may sound good to the recording industry. A few high-profile prosecutions might make an example of a few, and scare the rest straight, they figure.

I’m not so certain. I think that the harder we push to enforce the unenforceable, the less respect anyone will have for any law. I think these high-profile prosecutions might uncover not Keith Mitnick, but martyrs to a cause, and growing anger.

Drug laws have given us the largest prison population in the world. Yet demand for drugs continues apace, despite the fact that heroin, cocaine and amphetamines kill many people each year. Well, N’Sync won’t kill anyone, Gnutella lets anyone trade any files with anyone around the world, and we really think some jail time is going to stop it?

When lawbreaking is easy, and when it becomes commonplace, enforcement can only be random and haphazard. Do we want the law to be respected or feared? When your kid is in jail for downloading a Britney Spears song, how anxious will you be to support the RIAA and its “rights”? How anxious will you be to support any government that defends those rights?

You may be about to find out.

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